Friday, July 13, 2007

What goes into a "perfect line?"

Sometimes you come across a single line of poetry that is so striking that it has a life of its own. It would still be powerful even if it were ripped from its context, blowing around in the Sahara on a scrap of papyrus. If you like poetry, you have a lot of them drifting through your mind:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower

From silken Samarkand to cedered Lebanon

I knew a woman lovely in her bones

Inexplicable splendor of Ionian white and gold



Blogger Nick Seddon raised the old and rather murky question of what makes a line "perfect," but mostly left it to his readers to suggest answers. Dozens of people replied with lines they thought perfect. Many started getting off track and citing whole passages of their favorite poetry. A handful proposed some standards. Someone cited the "golden line" of Latin poetry.

Well, all of this got me thinking, and I thought about it way longer than I should have. It was easy to pick out lines that I thought were perfect, and less easy to say why they were perfect. First off, I decided that perfect is not the same thing as best. Some "perfect" lines I like better than others, but each one seems to inhabit its own little world. After looking closely at some of them, I put together some characteristics of the "perfect line":

1. It has to be complete. The root sense of "perfect" is "finished" (Latin, perfectus), as in "the perfect tense." There can't be bits of syntax intruding from the lines before or after. Look at this line:

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

It comes from a great poem ("The Windhover"), but it is not a perfect line. As a part of the whole, it is flawless; but it can never stand alone. Though a perfect line doesn't need to be a complete sentence. It isn't often a subordinate clause, but very often it's part of a clause: "Or stormy silver fret the gold of day" - Yeats. Usually the perfect line is either a main clause ("The wintry haw is burning out of season" - Heaney) or a single image - that is, a noun with all its pomps and accouterments, but without the slightest hint of a verb. And no need for one. These single image lines seem framed by a contemplative eye, and they don't have to justify their existence:

A rose-red city, half as old as time

A bracelet of bright hair about the bone


These things are sufficient in their own way. They can summon an image in your mind without any help from the rest of the poem. And such images!

2. It has to be strange.
A perfect line stands out vividly from the other lines, like a hologram. It is unique; it pops off the page. The idea must be strange, or the words used must be strange. Look at the last two lines I gave: "rose-red" is an unusual foil for "city," and bracelets are made of many things, but usually not of hair. "Half as old as time" - none of the words are unusual, but the idea is strange. The first line is strange in both ways: its first half uses strange diction; its second half uses a strange concept. The second line, one of John Donne's, takes three pairs of words, each perfectly normal, and then mixes them up. "Bright" and "bracelet" - connected by alliteration and association. "Bright" and "hair" - a commonplace. "Hair" and "bone" - definitely on the same page here. But combine them, and see how the bright beginning slopes down and becomes increasingly macabre, while the entire line retains an overlay of brightness, even at the gruesome ending...

3. It has to be familiar. Mere strangeness isn't enough. What I'm trying to get at is the idea of balance. The line has to strike a golden mean between... well, a lot of things - some of them obvious, many of them elusive. It should feel right somehow. It should have a bit of the primitive, a bit of the artless, to balance its strangeness. It should make you a bit homesick. Look at the Seamus Heaney line again: The wintry haw is burning out of season. It feels like a nursery rhyme or a song. I think of Tolkien: "In Western lands beneath the sun / The flowers may rise in spring..." or this:
When winter first begins to bite
And stones crack in the frosty night -
When pools are black and trees are bare,
Tis evil in the wild to fare.

The line feels like other simple lines that we've enjoyed before, but it stands apart from them with its elegant rhythm and highly tuned language.

4. It's usually iambic pentameter. If it's in English, that is. Why is this? Because I.P. is so widely used. Because iambic tetrameter doesn't finish a thought in one line so often. Because of that balance thing: there's something about those five feet that sounds complete. A four-foot line feels like it wants to keep on going. But here are some that aren't iambic pentameter:

She walks in beauty like the night

Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.


***


Now, a whole poem composed of perfect lines is not the ideal. It would be over-intense, as well as disjointed. There is a poem by Theodore Roethke that has an unusual number of perfect lines, and by the last stanza every line is syntactically complete and only vaguely connected to the other lines:

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

Lovely lines, but the lack of cohesion is slightly irritating.

In the end, of course, it's personal opinion that deems a line "perfect." The same line can give one person a charge and leave another cold. And I happen to like these:

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;

Low-latched in leaf-light housel his too huge godhead.

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Not where I breathe, but where I love I live

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May

That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Truth and beauty buried be.

And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

She's all states, and all princes I

Let bone be flute; the music in our marrow

8 comments:

dylan said...

She moved in circles, and those circles moved (Roethke)

Sheila said...

Alliteration and other sound effects help especially -- it binds a line and makes it memorable.

Mid-numbered He in three of the thunder-throne!

To bathe in his fall-gold mercies, to breathe in his all-fire glances.

Like a silver-wrought garment that clings to and follows the firm sweet limbs of a girl.

these fragments I have shored against my ruins

lady I swear by all flowers

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

John said...

I'm going to have to go with Donne:

And Earth-born body in the Earth doth dwell

Double alliteration, and some assonance to boot. But I wouldn't confine anything to iambic pentameter for English. What about the Ballad of the White Horse?

Meredith said...

Ah yes; what about the Ballad of the White Horse?


Shake up the dust of thanes like thunder

For the end of the world was long ago

Away in the waste of White Horse Down

And a tear is in the tiniest flower

Smells that a man might swill in a cup

His century like a small dark cloud

Love with the shield of the Broken Heart

The child played on, alone, divine

And the psalm is roaring above the rune

The wandering heart of things that are

Ride through the silent earthquake lands

Up through an empty house of stars

Steel and lightning broke about him

And we all shall yet drink Christian ale



Wow. I guess I had a hard time thinking of these apart from their couplets, but they work. To put it mildly.

Sheila said...

But she was a queen of men.

(One of my favorite lines from the poem.)

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